Having mentioned to a colleague that I’d gone to see 12:08 East of Bucharest during the summer, he recommended that I catch the Romanian 2007 Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamani Si 2 Zile) which he’d heard great things about back home. It was eventually released in the UK in January, and without reading up about it in advance, I caught a screening of it on Monday night, not quite knowing what to expect.
Set in 1987 Romania, it’s a dark, drab, dreary world, where prosperity is just a lesser form of poverty, and the default emotion is a mix of sadness and futility. We spend a day with Otilia and Gabita (played by Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu), university roommates in a dorm where students casually sell off their unwanted cosmetics and cigarettes to each other. Everything has a price. No one can really afford to do a good turn without repayment. Bureaucracy and bribery are rife. And remember it’s a time before affordable mobiles and text messaging.
With a slow build up, it’s actually 34 minutes into the film before the characters talk about Gabita’s condition and her decision. Still under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu and before the end of communism, abortion is illegal. But the sometimes shy, unconfident and erratic Gabita has used her friend Otilia to arrange a termination, booking a hotel room and making contact with Mr Bebe. Gabita is right at the point where the offence switches from having (or assisting) an abortion to murder, and all three are being forced into taking an incredible risk - legally and medically.
Otilia is the real focus of the film, as we watch how she deals with the consequences of her actions and those of the people around her. Drawn by circumstance into the underworld, deeper and darker than she’s ever had to delve before. Emotionally juggling her friend’s need for help alongside her boyfriend Adi’s expectations. Otilia’s a punch bag that takes hits from everyone.
On-screen there’s discomfort as friendship is stretched beyond what’s normal, and long periods of silence when Gabita and Otilia are unable or unwilling to talk. A film that’s punctuated by ghastly, awful silence.
There’s a period in 4 Months ... where Gabita is trapped on the hotel bed unable to move, while Otilia is trapped at the dinner table of her boyfriend’s house where they’re having a birthday party for his mother. A must-attend event. Yet Otilia sits in the centre of the static picture, barely speaking for eight minutes as the rest of the party gabble, shriek and insult. The audience feel sick with worry as they watch, unable to intervene. The subtitles and the foreign dialogue enhance the feeling of remoteness and helplessness. Otilia suffers in silence, while over in the hotel, Gabita displays unexpected strength of character.
Oleg Mutu’s camerawork has a very distinctive style: the camera tends to follow characters about from behind as they walk around the locations. And inside rooms the shot often stays fixed, allowing characters to walk in and out of the “wings” and sometimes only two of the three characters in a room will be shown, with another talking from out of the camera’s view. Night time scenes are shot in near darkness! A novelty in a world dominated by Hollywood blockbusters whose visual (and plot) approach leaves little to the audience’s imagination.
I’ve got to emphasise that this film is not comfortable to watch, and there were many moments on Monday night when people grimaced and looked away from Screen 2. The subject matter makes it a lot harder-hitting than the average certificate 15. It must be particularly awful to watch as a woman. I did briefly wonder whether it’s a worthy subject for a film. But isn’t all art meant to ask questions and challenge our default thinking and behaviour? It’s not just about entertainment. Some might disagree - expect to see comments below! The director Cristian Mungiu sought to open up a debate in Romania about abortion.
Under Ceausescu, not only was abortion banned, but contraception was restricted in the 1960s to swell the population. Despite the risks, there was a demand for illegal terminations in Romania: an estimated 500,000 women died as a result of back street abortions. Once legalised at the end of communism, an incredible two million women took advantage of the procedure within the first twelve months.
4 Months ... is a stark reminder about how people can feel trapped by their circumstances, as well as tackling the realities of abortion - whether back-street or legal - and the emotional trauma that those involved suffer.
Writing for Salon.com, Andrew O’Hehir sets aside the issue of abortion and outlines his different view of this film noir:
“If this was a movie about young men instead of young women, and if the illegal activity in the story involved a suitcase of money or a harebrained plot to kill someone ... then its genre roots would be no mystery.
There’s an unconscious sexist assumption at work here, which probably affects both male and female viewers: a supposedly serious film with female main characters has to be about explicitly marked-out ‘issues’ while a film about men can engage with cinema history, grapple with existential self-examination, explore the dark night of the soul, and so on.
In fact, although ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks’ is about a woman who wants to have an abortion, it isn’t about the question of abortion at all - whatever opinion you enter with on that subject is the same one you’ll leave with.
... ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks’ places a woman in the traditionally male role of the noir hero, who must suffer mental and physical anguish, reap the whirlwind from his/her bad decisions and push onward without displaying emotion.”
At the end of the film, there is hope. Brokenness has been offset with determination. Despite the day’s events, the film ends with Otilia’s suggestion to Gabita over the hotel dinning room table:
“You know we’re never going to talk about this?”
It’s like they’re gathering their skirts and moving on.
All over in 1 hour 49 minutes and 18 seconds, I was surprised at the amount of chatter as folk left the cinema. Perhaps compensating for their turmoil in their minds and stomachs? It’ll be interesting to see how Mungiu completes trilogy of stories about communist Romania told though urban legends under the banner of Tales from the Golden Age.
From the trailers beforehand, Lars and the Real Girl looks like the bizarre film of the month, while Juno (which has some fluffy overlap with 4 Months ... update - now seen and reviewed) may well be the quirky shouldn’t-like-it-but-could-warm-to-it surprise treat.